Paul Elmer More
Literary Criticism as the History of Ideas
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Paul Elmer More was one of the leaders of the New Humanism, the most important critical movement in the United States during the first decades of this century. It was a wide-ranging moral approach to literary and cultural criticism that laid the intellectual foundation for American conservatism. Though eclipsed in the realm of critical fashions by more exclusively aesthetic approaches, the moral approach retains its appeal among general readers, and More has remained known and respected among those concerned with literature as an expression of ideas and values, as a criticism of life.
Seriously considered for the Nobel Prize on two occasions, More wrote over a dozen volumes of literary criticism, which Robert Spiller, in the Literary History of the United States, calls "the utmost ambitious and often the most penetrating body of judicial literary criticism in our literature. " Among those who have praised More's brilliant and comprehensive mind is T. S. Eliot, who in acknowledging his indebtedness to More referred to him as "one of the two wisest men I have known. "
Focusing on the continuity of More's literary criticism, Stephen L. Tanner has performed the useful service of distilling from More's diverse and prolific literary essays the characteristic principles that determined his literary judgments. Chief among these principles is a concept of dualism that views each individual as being subject to the opposing forces of "passion of the moment and the eternal law above and within. " This concept is the anchor point of More's probing critique of the excessive and dehumanizing forms of romanticism, naturalism, humanitarianism, scientism, and rationalism. And it accounts for his forceful advocacy of the "inner check" and the "law of measure. "